3/13/2008

Race Profiteers

Playing the race card is a common power play on the left -- it's only effective against liberal whites who bend over backwards not to appear racist. But it's just a power play -- dirty politics. It has no effect on real racists, and blacks who play the race card know that. It's a tool for self-promotion by people who profiteer in tweaking black rage.

I recall a writer's conference where my publisher, a progressive white man who had published several books by black writers, was crucified as a racist. At a staged panel discussion, people screamed at him like he was Simon Legree. My editor Sasha Alyson, a cultural pioneer himself, had sponsored an award for 'literary pioneers' in the name of the pioneering black poet Joe Beame, but he didn't restrict the award to black writers. That made him a racist -- he had thought of the pioneering black poet as 'pioneer first' rather than as 'black first.' I knew that every other white editor at that conference wouldn't look twice at a black writer's manuscript. So I walked around after the excoriation, asking what was that about? All I got was a chorus of groupthink, a string of intimidated PC 'Chatty Kathy' dolls: 'I love people of color, I love people of color.' It was straight out of the body snatchers -- these were all writers, editors, people presumably invested in freedom of speech/thought, except when it came to race.

My editor later told me that the writer who staged the excoriation only objected to the literary prize after he found out he hadn't won it.


'mmmmm -- where have I heard that before?'


Whites will profiteer with the race card too. My neighborhood (Chelsea) may be the most racially diverse/harmonious in New York. A large Hispanic population in the city housing projects co-exists with gays, upscale whites, very upscale art galleries and shops, with little racial tension. In 1992, a hip-hop disco called 'Home Bass' opened up in the neighborhood. This was the pre-IPOD 'boom box age.' The night the hip-hop club opened up, we were invaded by 'boom box jeeps' - a traffic jam backed up from the riverfront halfway across Manhattan. Five floors up, my wooden floors vibrated from the bass beat down in the streets -- at 2 A.M. I couldn't drown out the noise if I turned my own stereo up full volume. The noise in the street from the boom jeeps was louder than the sound systems in most clubs.

Now there's nothing unusual abut discos disrupting neighborhoods, triggering a standard response of massive, organized complaints from the residents. Because the hip-hop club's clientele were mostly black and Latino youth, I knew race would complicate the problem, so I got involved. Predictably, the club's pricey attorney, a white man speaking for the club's white management, accused the neighborhood of being racist -- suggesting we wouldn't complain if it were the Hell's Angels pissing on our doorsteps instead of black and Puerto Rican teenagers. (Please! I have no preference for the smell of white piss!) It made no difference that the black and Puerto Rican families in the neighborhood wanted the club shut down even more than the whites because the popular disco attracted crack dealers targeting young buyers. (Many of the upscale whites in Chelsea, and of course the gays, don't have kids.)

So we lobbied the City Commissioner, our City Council Rep, and our State Senator -- all white, all liberal Democrats. That's when I saw the power of the race card. Among the club's young clientele were gay bashers who had never seen men holding hands in public. (Chelsea is known as an 'urban gay mecca.') In one weekend alone, there were twelve bashings. Yet even our openly gay City Council rep (Tom Duane, now a State Senator) was intimidated by the race card and hedged on shutting down the disco.

But in particular, the City Commissioner (Mark Green, who later ran for Mayor) was completely castrated by the totally bogus race card. Chelsea is known as an 'upscale neighborhood' because of its shops and galleries, though in fact it's socially and racially very mixed. But the club's lawyer threatened to run newspaper stories: 'whites in Chelsea don't want colored kids in their white neighborhood' -- absolute bullshit. Mark Green was completely paralyzed by the race card. While the neighborhood was railing for the club to be shut down, Green approved a club renovation to double the club's legal occupancy. The City Commissioner was kneecapped by the race card.

My white neighbors complained about the race baiting. My advice was this: If they play the race card, you play the race card back!

Instead of complaining about the noise and gaybashing, we argued to Green that the club's primary economic purpose was to attract black and Puerto Rican youth into one location as targeted customers for the crack dealers. We claimed that the club's legal fees were actually being paid by high level drug dealers as part of this 'crack marketing strategy' targeting black kids. We claimed that a violent racial incident involving the police was inevitable--in which case, we'd have Rev. Al Sharpton marching through Chelsea and city wide riots. If that happened, we'd have some press attention that we could control, and we would then accuse Mark Green of letting the most racially harmonious neighborhood in the city descend into a hotbed of racial tension. The riot prediction was especially effective (this was the autumn after the L.A. riots.) Armed with some 'race card' ammunition of his own, Mark Green grew back his balls, canceled the club's permit, and won a court challenge to his action.

So now we're seeing the same thing with the Obama campaign crying race to intimidate the DNC.

As I said, this is just a power play, dirty politics, patronage, payout, nothing new. Playing the race card is just as revolting as yelling "9/11! 9/11! 9/11! 9/11! 9/11!" I'm used to dirty politics. But I'm especially offended by the race card (1) because it's so neurotic -- my editor's excoriation was a virtual bonfire of neurosis. And (2) because it suppresses free thought -- it requires groupthink from blacks, and passive submission to censorship by whites. It also incentivizes stupidity (like the Orlando Patterson piece).

And I'm offended when black elites play the race card for their own personal gain because it legitimizes the very concept of 'playing the race card.' So when blacks have legitimate grievances (and we have plenty), those grievances are often met with 'you're playing the race card.' I know 'playing the race card' triggers a backlash, and that backlash then provides cover for brazen expressions of real racism. The 'cry wolf' metaphor is absolutely dead-on.

13 Comments:

At 9:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right on, brother! I couldn't agree with you more--especially that last part. I am a Black woman university professor and I can see how this "race card" profiteering is going to affect progressive calls for addressing the *real* acts of racism against communities of color! It should give us all pause when even redneck conservative pundits are also "playing the race card" on behalf of Obama. We don't see how calling any- and every-thing "racism" is going to come back and kick us in the butt....!

Wow. The *real* racists couldn't have written this democratic race-baiting script any better!

Thank you for the great analysis.

 
At 9:41 PM, Blogger Taylor Marsh said...

Really terrific stuff, Canaan. I lived in New York way back, and know of Chelsea. Your take on what's going on now is welcome.

 
At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic writing. Thank you for your insight and clarity.

DebDeb

 
At 9:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing your insight into this current mess we all find ourselves trying to sort through and make sense of. I appreciate your honesty and your truthful assessment.

 
At 10:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a Black woman from the Caribbean and I saw the race card being played by the Obama camp from day one. Any blind person could have seen it, and adding fuel to the fire Jesse Jackson, Jr. Obama and his surrogates are using the race card as a way to manipulate the election process for their own selfish gains. For them the strategy is, "let's muzzle camp Hillary."

 
At 10:08 PM, Blogger Robin said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 10:13 PM, Anonymous Laken4 said...

Thank you, Canaan. Your post does more to accurately describe the very nuanced dynamics of this entire racially polarizing, sexist and homophobic fiasco than just about anything I have read. It has been so tiring and demoralizing to watch so many Blacks who I have respected because they have been there for us regarding sexism and homophobia, knowingly use the very real tragedy of racism to push a candidate who cannot and should not prevail. Not knowing better is a valid defense but the people I (and I believe you) reference absolutely know what they are doing and I don't know if I am more sad or angry but I do know that I am not paralyzed and am prepared to fight to the end. It's a shame that this fight is even taking place when we have so much else to do. Thank you, again, for speaking for me and so many others.

 
At 12:11 AM, Anonymous ann said...

Thank you Canaan, great post. You'd think it would be obvious to everyone that the race card was being played when the post-racial candidate's surrogate demanded apologies whenever anyone mentioned that Obama is a black man. That is the absurd world in which we live.

Hillary is my candidate because she has been fighting for racial and gender equality for years and she believes that economic equality is the agenda for all of us.

 
At 12:43 AM, Anonymous ken in texas said...

Canaan,

What I would have given to have seen you on Dan Abrahms show against that nitwit Kelli Goof instead of Pat Buchanan! You hit it right on the nail. The race card only works on those who "care about being viewed as a racist". Calling someone a racist, who doesnt mind being a racist, is a waste of time. They might equivocate in public, go along with the herd, like in the Iowa caucuses. But get them alone in a voting booth, and its a different story. Obama's campaign race card strategy has already lost him every southern state should he win the nomination. And I dont know how he thinks he can win in Missouri, Penn., or Ohio with this strategy.
Anyone reading this comment, please read some of this bloggers earlier posts. He is a hell of a writer. I will be back.

 
At 3:08 AM, Blogger Canaan said...

Thank you all, what a treat!

 
At 9:26 AM, Anonymous soupcity said...

Excellent perspective, Caanan, thank you!

 
At 11:24 AM, Blogger navyvet48 said...

Thank you for insight. I enjoyed your perspective. I was always aware of the diversity of NYC but was unaware of Chelsea.

 
At 11:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well written. However, I disagree with your opinion. First, this argument over race-baiting, and who started it, needs clarification. On its face, Ferraro's statement I do not believe is a racist one. However, there are millions low-income, uneducated, rural, white voters in America who, hearing that statement, don't hear an objective, clear assessment of Barack Obama's candidacy. She was responding to a question posed to her asking why are Hillary and Barack neck and neck? Did her response include the failure on Clinton's part to maintain her appeal to women? Constant missteps, blunders, drastic shifts in message and mood of herself and her campaign? No. Ferraro said it's because he's black. No one can deny that Obama's race is a factor in his success. But that factor alone doesn't contribute any more or less than Clinton's own failures. But making a statement like the one she did puts into context an argument that those in Clinton's electorate (poor, uneducated, white, old) can use to energize and increase the anti-vote for Obama. Why is that not race-baiting? Why do you ascribe race-baiting to Obama's camp? A Clinton supporter made the statement. Bill Clinton compared Obama's candidacy to Jesse Jackson and southern blacks responded in kind. How is that race-baiting on Obama's part? Black people saw that comment for themselves and they didn't like the racial undertone from the "first black president." What Clinton's campaign has been trying to do is keep Obama in that black box to preserve her low-income white vote. Period.

 

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